When 1 percent of people in a despotic country or conservative society have the courage to stand up and seek to change it, they can stir up a groundswell. When 5 percent are willing to stand up, they can start an avalanche that leads to real change in that country or society.
Taiwan’s progression from despotism to democracy and its society’s advance from conservatism to diversity and openness were made possible by that 1 percent.
This 1 percent is a crucial flame. If it is extinguished, it will become very hard to change a country or society. This is the reason despotic states go out of their way to track down, control and extinguish this 1 percent.
When there is a dictatorship, the 1 percent might largely consist of students studying abroad, where they are in a relatively safe environment. Among people who hope to see their countries change for the better, it is relatively easy for those living abroad to stand up and speak their minds.
During Taiwan’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, many students studying in Europe, the US, Japan and other places bravely stood up and played the role of that 1 percent. Even though they might be placed on the government’s overseas blacklist, preventing them from ever returning to their homeland, they remained courageous and unafraid.
These people truly cared about Taiwan, loved it throughout their lives and hoped it could become a better place. Being overseas, they often felt left out, but they felt indebted to Taiwan and always hoped to contribute something.
On May 21, Chinese student Yang Shuping (楊舒平) spoke at the commencement ceremony at the University of Maryland. Her speech has been shared far and wide on Internet video sites, and some of the things she said have drawn strong criticism from all parts of Chinese society. Even the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs called on her to take responsibility and clarify her position.
What did Yang actually say? She said she had taken five face masks with her to the US, but had not needed any of them, because, as she said: “The air was so sweet and fresh, and utterly luxurious.”
Drawing her speech to a conclusion, she said: “Democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for. Freedom is oxygen. Freedom is passion. Freedom is love.”
The ministry responded in threatening tones, saying it wanted this overseas student to make a public apology. Beijing is trying to shift the focus of this incident by concentrating on Yang’s supposed humiliation of her home country.
Some Internet sleuths traced her background, saying that she came from Kunming in Yunnan Province, where she attended the Kunming No. 1 High School, and that the air quality there is not so bad. Some even said that she should go and study on the African savanna.
Any normal person can see what Yang was saying. Her story about five masks was obviously an exaggeration, but pollution and fresh, sweet air were not her main point. What matters is that sentence from the concluding part of her speech: “Democracy and freedom are the fresh air that is worth fighting for.”
It comes as no surprise that the affair ended with Yang making a public apology. Chinese are clever, and those who get to study abroad are the cleverest of them all. They do not expect a great deal from their home country.
The Chinese students I have known were never so foolish as to try and set their home country on the road to democracy and freedom so all its people could breathe that precious fresh air. They prefer to reside in other countries, breathing the fresh air of freedom and democracy for themselves, while helping to preserve China’s smog and haze.
There is a big difference between Taiwan and China. It can be seen from the way overseas students behave.
Who do Chinese students protest against when they are abroad? The great majority of them protest not against the Chinese government, but against former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), the Dalai Lama, Yang and so forth.
Living in a relatively free and safe environment, they go on supporting China’s dictatorial and despotic government.
In comparison, in the old days, many Taiwanese studying abroad got themselves blacklisted for protesting against the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government and could not go back home. Even after the suspicious death in 1981 of US-based math professor Chen Wen-chen (陳文成) after being interrogated in Taipei, they did not flinch, but steeled their determination for Taiwan to take the path to democracy and freedom.
In this aspect at least, Taiwanese are completely different from Chinese. What most Chinese students abroad want is to stay overseas and bring their families there. If they can get anything good out of China while they are at it, all well and good, but that is all.
The Chinese government keeps its people under strict control. It has built the “Great Firewall of China” to restrict people’s access to news and information from abroad. Online payment services, such as Alipay and Sesame Credit, are leading toward a society of digital terror like that portrayed in the British television series Black Mirror. Chinese have to show their identity cards when buying train tickets and phone cards.
China’s Cybersecurity Law, which took effect on June 1, requires people to use their real names on the Internet and that all fixed-line and mobile telephone companies and online communications services must keep a list of their users’ real names available for examination.
The law tells Internet service providers to inspect the content of e-mail and other kinds of message to ensure that they do not contravene Chinese laws and administrative orders.
People might get in trouble if they talk about things like the 1989 democracy movement and Taiwanese independence, and any content that breaks the rules must be stored, recorded and reported.
Starting in September, when Chinese make overseas credit card payments equivalent to more than NT$5,000, their banks must record them and submit itemized reports.
Measures such as these have turned China into the world’s most advanced information technology dictatorship — a nation where science and technology serve the dictators.
This situation has arisen because in the entire course of China’s development, no “1 percent” has ever appeared. This makes it possible for China’s rulers to use technological progress to move step by step toward a dictatorship with “100 percent” total surveillance.
It could be called the technological evolution of dictators.
Li Jung-shian is deputy director-general of the National Center for High-performance Computing.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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